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Analyzing Collective Memory

Analyzing Collective Memory

(p.52) Chapter 2 Analyzing Collective Memory
Collective Memory and the Historical Past
Jeffrey Andrew Barash
University of Chicago Press

This chapter explores the ways in which collective memory is symbolically configured in relation to its context of elaboration. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech is employed to illustrate this relation. Presented in 1963, King's speech conveyed to contemporaries the conviction that Lincoln's promise of equality made to black Americans a hundred years previously had not been kept. In doing so, King invoked different layers of embodied symbols, both of a political and a theological order. Nonetheless, in the context of his hearers, immediate personal experience of this event must be distinguished from apprehension of its symbolic implications. According to the argument of this chapter, collective remembrance in the public sphere gravitates between two extremities: between the singularity of perspective of directly recalled personal impressions and symbolic embodiment which raises remembrance beyond personal experience to endow it with significance that is communicable in the public sphere. At the level of public communicability, collective memory, as it incorporates a variety of perspectives of individuals and smaller groups, far from uniform, is fragmented, which accounts for the different and even contradictory ways in which the same symbolically embodied memories may be interpreted in a given contemporaneous context.

Keywords:   Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., anachronism, commemoration, political symbolism, memory conflict, temporal context, symbolic incorporation

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